An Atlanta-area public school teacher and parent recently wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her frustration with and questions about the ideas of the National Governors Association on school reform.
Besides lamenting the “destruction of our children that is being carried out under the sanctimonious and specious names of accountability and reform,” Cindy Lutenbacher advises us to follow the money, just as Deep Throat advised Woodward and Bernstein in their untangling of the Watergate scandal. In fact, most people are not aware of the enormous influence of money — both to advance an agenda and to profit on its implementation — that is contaminating reform efforts.
Coincidentally (not!), the folks making the big bucks tend to be politically appointed by those who create these mandates. Plenty of money has been raked in by firms that create standardized tests, or score them, or offer test prep for them, or provide mandated tutoring services when schools do not make adequate yearly progress on them. An amazing percentage of such companies came from Texas during the Bush II years.
Other reform efforts, which are not strictly mandated but are sources of considerable funding for schools, have been similarly corrupt in implementation. For example, Edward Kame’enui and Sharon Vaughn “earned” well over a million dollars as directors of technical-assistance centers that advised states on meeting the Reading First program’s strict guidelines for its billion dollars in grants per year during the second Bush administration. They did this by prescribing reading programs that garnered them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year apiece in royalties — a glaring, if lucrative, conflict of interest.
A third interesting source of cash-related influence comes from what Diane Ravitch calls the Billionaire Boys’ Club: the richest folks in America, through their foundations, have been driving the school reform agenda since before the turn of the century. Grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Microsoft money), the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart money), and the Eli and Edith Broad Foundation (homebuilding and insurance money) embody their billionaires’ aim to transform education using the principles that made them successful in business. Their intent is to bring market-driven competition and incentives to bear on education. Choice and privatization are assumed to produce a better “return on investment.”
They’ve succeeded — not in achieving their goals, but in setting the policy agenda from the federal level down to the individual school level. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top both prescribe reforms based on the theories of these and other very rich men (many from the dot-com boom of the 1990s).
The irony is that, while demanding accountability of teachers, schools, districts, and states, they are accountable to no one. No one elected them. No one can tell them they are mistaken. As Ravitch notes, “to date, not a single book has been published that has questioned their education strategies.” You know why? Because no one can afford to alienate the goose that lays the golden eggs.
What about those strategies?
A prime example of what can go wrong with this foundation-driven approach is Bill Gates’s determination to replace comprehensive high schools with the small (under 400-student) high schools that he thinks are more effective. “Rigor, relevance, and relationship” in these more intimate environments would cure all ills. What few folks realized, in the mad scramble for Gates Foundation grants, was that there was no research proving that small schools are better.
I attended a small high school myself (350 students), so I know their limitations. I’m not talking about the two sports offered, the lack of any art or music beyond a single choir, or the foreign language taught by the unqualified (wherein my French I teacher told us to ignore the accent marks that are fundamental to learning French). No, all those could be considered extras. I’m talking about the weakness in core academic offerings. While my school was excellent in many respects, I was woefully under-prepared for college in science and math, because a school of that size simply did not have the resources to offer advanced physics and calculus classes. (I should mention that, even when two or three small schools co-existed within the same rearranged large building, the terms of the Gates grants prevented them from collaborating to synergize their efforts.)
There had been (1997) research bearing out my concern regarding inadequate curriculum in very small high schools and recommending 600–900 students as a more ideal size. Just this month, a report seemed to find success in the small high schools in New York City, but critics have noted that the improved graduation rate and achievement touted may be illusory, since English language–learners and students with disabilities were (illegally) excluded from these schools for the first few years, and since the well documented “grade-inflation” on the Regents Exams means their results are no longer correlated with those on the SAT or the NAEP exams.
After poor results (several prime-example schools closed in failure) and more than a billion dollars in grants, the Gates Foundation abandoned its small schools advocacy in 2008 and moved to promoting charter schools, pay for performance, Common Core national standards and their joined-at-the-hip national tests, and comprehensive data systems to make all this “accountability” possible. Once again, the strategies preceded or contradicted the research on effectiveness.
Similarly, the Broad Foundation has invested heavily where there were no elected school boards to interfere (in New York City and Oakland after mayoral and state takeovers) or where the board was amenable (San Diego, for a while). Eli Broad wants to run schools as he did his businesses: autocratically. The fact that many of his investments did not pay off to his satisfaction has not discouraged him. Like Bill Gates, he just moves to different places and strategies — with all the strategies seemingly dictated by his corporation-formed “gut instincts.”
It is amazing, when you realize these do-gooder entrepreneurs made their money through creative innovation, to realize that they are now enforcing a focus only on basic skills assessed by standardized tests for a generation of our children. Their philosophy permeates the federal and state departments of education, politicians of all stripes, the foundations that fund research and programming, and even the journals (such as Education Week) that should be judging the true effectiveness of their prescribed strategies — all of whom are beholden to their money.
As Cindy asks, “For the sake of our kids, when will we revolt?”